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A new two-part TV special takes a look at both drinks and politics during Prohibition.

Adam Campbell-Schmitt
June 08, 2018

When we look back at Prohibition, we might be tempted to glorify the era from 1920 to 1933 as one of glitz, excess, and freewheeling fun in the face of an unnecessary law. But the origins behind the 18th amendment and the repercussions of its enforcement touch issues as far-ranging as racism, the war on drugs, prison reform, and anti-immigration sentiments, all of which we're still dealing with as a nation to this day. To tell the whole story (and clear up some of the misconceptions) of the temperance movement's successful campaign to illegalize the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages, the Smithsonian Channel will air a two-part documentary Drinks, Crime and Prohibition starting this Monday, June 11.

You'll notice "drinks" is the first word in that title, which is no accident. The documentary shares recipes and origin stories behind some of the era's original (and well-named) cocktails, from the French 75 to the Mary Pickford to the Scofflaw. Interviewed throughout the two hour-long episodes is mixology expert and president of the Drink Company Derek Brown, who serves up the history of these classic drinks.

I asked Brown about cocktails in America before, during, and after Prohibition and how nostalgic drinkers can recreate the flavors of 1920's speakeasy culture at home.

Adam Campbell-Schmitt: What are the biggest misconceptions we have about Prohibition drinks and drinking?

Derek Brown: The greatest misconception is that Prohibition created cocktails. In fact, most of the cocktails we consider "Prohibition era" were probably created before Prohibition. Cocktails like the Manhattan, Martini, Daiquiri, all were created during what we refer to as the Golden Age of cocktails between the 1850's and Prohibition. That's not to say that Prohibition didn't have an unintended positive effect on cocktails. Once bartending was illegal in the United States it helped to spread an already nascent culture of American bars throughout the world. In fact, actual Prohibition-era cocktails like the Mary Pickford or Scofflaw were created in Cuba and Paris, respectively.

ACS: What were American cocktails like before, during, and after Prohibition?

DB: During the Golden Age, American cocktails had exhibited a high level of skill and execution. This is the time that some of the most legendary bartenders lived, Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, William "The Only William" Schmidt, Tom Bullock. Unfortunately, Prohibition changed that. Their jobs were now outlawed. They either changed professions, retired, worked illegally or went overseas. This was an unfortunate loss of skill but we also see cocktails proliferate throughout the world and new ingredients making their way into drinks. We also see great international bartenders taking the stage such as Ada Coleman from the American Bar at the Savoy in London.

ACS: How did Prohibition “improve” American cocktails?

DB: Cocktails went from being something uniquely American in the 19th century to part of world culinary culture. A new crop of great drinks became relevant. That change may have started a little before Prohibition but it was Prohibition that launched it into full gear.

ACS: What effects from Prohibition are we still dealing with in drinking culture and business today?

DB: It took the U.S. a long time to fully recover from Prohibition and we do see some of the lingering effects such as the three-tiered system in selling alcohol. Fortunately, having taken this turn, we have a diversity of styles and influences within cocktail culture from Tiki to Japanese bartending and our range of bars today reflect that. I would say we live in the best of all possible worlds today. Something Jim Meehan termed the Platinum Age of bartending. If you're a drinker, you're very lucky to be alive. Savor it.

ACS: How can people best recreate Prohibition-style cocktails at home?

DB: First, find some great recipes you want to use. There are so many books and websites you can use. Don't confine yourself to just during Prohibition, think pre-Prohibition. It's still era-appropriate as some speakeasies would serve the classics.

Second, get the right ingredients. Think Rye over Bourbon, Gin over vodka. And lots of Rum. Rum was readily available during Prohibition and makes a wonderful cocktail ingredient.

Third, add a little pageantry. Sure you had backrooms with nothing more than some grain alcohol and mobsters but some of the "speakeasies" were grand rooms with music and dancing. Buy some fancy glassware and mixing gear. Make it fun! That's what our ancestors were fighting for, the right to party (apologies to the Beastie Boys).

Part one of the Smithsonian Channel's "Drinks, Crimes and Prohibition" airs Monday, June 11 at 8 p.m and part two airs Monday, June 18 at 8 p.m.

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